I recently had the chance to speak with Crowed Daemon Studios, creators of the game FREAK, to talk about the challenges of game development, the environment in the games industry and perils of being a sentient autistic zombie in 2D.
First things first, introduce yourselves and tell us a little about your involvement with the development of FREAK.
Nadia: Hi I’m Nadia and I’m in charge of taking everything I’m told to do and making it pretty, AKA the art director.
Jenn: I’m Jenn and I sort of have a lot of tiny roles. I typically say I’m a producer but I’m also PR director, a junior artist, co-writer and sound artist.
Chris: My name is Chris, I’m the lead designer, level designer, and head writer for FREAK.
How did Crowned Daemon come together as a team? Did you all wake up one day and were like “Hey I know! Let’s make games!”
Chris: We’d all been working together on various projects for about five years, with some of us working together for up to seven or twelve years. We’re all very close-knit, so when I did decide to make games, the choice for who to work with was obvious.
What parts of the game are you most proud of so far?
Jenn: I’m in love with the cut scenes, mostly. Nadia and I put a lot of time and effort into those and I think it really pays off. Honestly though, I really like how everything is coming along.
Nadia: I also really like the cutscenes because they [sic] rotoscope style is fairly unique for games and not something you see utilized often. It also fits very well with the 80s psychedelic theme that the music is in.
Chris: Even in its early stages, I love the work that our artists have put into the cinematics and game assets. Trying to figure out how best to make the art work in the style of game we’re attempting has been challenging but I’m still impressed with everything that they’ve managed so far. The cinematics especially are incredible, especially after the amount of time it takes to make them, to finally see the end result makes it all worth it.
The amount of work that’s gone into the coding of the game is also quite something. Our programmers have taken on a lot of work to get our game ready for our demo, and given the window of time we needed to have things done in they’ve performed extremely well. There’s a lot of complicated systems in our game.
Your game [FREAK] has an autistic sentient zombie as a lead character, was this a deliberate choice from day one or did the character evolve during development?
Chris: It was a choice from day one. There aren’t a lot of autistic characters in games, and only one of them (to my awareness) is male, and none of them are main characters. Making Tinker a part-zombie was also a very conscious decision on our part, as it plays a part in subverting expectations of autistic people in media (especially games media) having otherworldly powers.
Recently there was some controversy and seeming hysteria about comments made by industry veteran Ken Levine about autistic characters. Do you worry about the potential backlash that trying to create certain types of character can bring?
Jenn: It’s definitely a concern that people will not like specific characters or that there might be backlash because of the way they are portrayed, but in the end we’re very serious about creating realistic and interesting characters who compliment the game. We could choose to agonize about reactions to them and water down our game as a result but in the end that would be a disservice to people who play the game and people who are like those characters in reality.
Chris: I would say that I’m wary, not worried. So far the reaction has been positive. Sure there are some people who have snickered at the idea or raised an eyebrow, but this is not discouraging to us at all. Those reactions are why we felt this game had to be made with the characters it has. Autism is widely misrepresented and misunderstood in the media, and the only way that’s going to change is if people step forward and start speaking for themselves from their own experiences. This also applies to other characters and creators from all variety of backgrounds.
As to Ken Levine specifically, I personally think the controversy surrounding his remarks was overblown and his remarks twisted to reflect an opinion he doesn’t actually hold. If people in gaming want to have a genuine conversation or understanding about people with autism, the first thing they’re going to have to do is acknowledge that not all people with autism are necessarily good people, just like not all people of any group are inherently good. Autistic people, like any other, have flaws, moral failings, and make bad choices. Denying the ability of a group of people to do bad makes any good they do meaningless. I have the distinct feeling this is going to be a topic that comes up often in discussion of our game leading into its release as well as afterwards, but that is where we stand on the issue.
Do you think it is easier or harder to make the kind of game you want to than it was five years ago?
Chris: Undeniably easier. While we’ve only been in the business of making games for a short time, all the things we rely on to make, market, and distribute our game have been recent phenomenon. It has never been easier to make a game, and without this ease I don’t think we could have gotten Freak even this far.
How useful have you found industry bodies like the IGDA in facilitating development? Would you like to see a better support network for developers?
Chris: I’ve had a mixed experience with the IGDA. On one hand, I attended one of their meetups once and met a lot of nice gamedev people in my area, which was nice and helped me make a lot of industry contacts (and a signed game poster, which was cool). On the other hand the IGDA endorsed a block bot which listed me as a harasser and still has yet to adequately apologize to myself and other developers who have been put onto this list.
Looking at FREAK, the game has some rather striking animated sequences. How challenging has achieving these been as a small studio been?
Nadia: Not gonna lie, it has been my biggest challenge as an artist so far. It’s a labour of love, but the labour is always there. I am the only one drawing the frames, which leads to long days and few breaks to make sure I can deliver quality as quickly as possible. That’s the reality of animation though, but when you’re working on such a small team it can get pretty overwhelming. I think people see animation and forget that, especially in 2d, there are people responsible for ever line, colour and effect taking place. For example, I am currently drawing a scene at 24fps. That is 24 drawings for every second of footage you see. It makes for some pretty sweet movement, but damn is it taxing.
Jenn: The animated sequences are definitely time consuming. For those who aren’t familiar with rotoscoping, it’s basically when you draw over video captured footage, which is what gives it that hyper realistic movement that I think a lot of people are impressed by. Even this description is a little misleading though, because when Nadia draws the frames she isn’t just “tracing”, she’s translating the images into the style used for the video game as well.
Do you think Zombies have been overdone as a game enemy or will they always be fun to smush?
Chris: I don’t think people will ever get sick of zombies as a whole so long as the games are well-designed and do enough to stand out from the crowd, just like any other game genre. I think the oversaturation people describe revolving around zombie media is the fact that zombie media of all kinds has always been cheap to produce in movies and TV, and the same holds true for games. With cheapness to produce comes a lot of stuff that is poor quality, which can lead to a lot of people being turned away from the genre as a whole just like a lot of people probably wouldn’t want to jump into a pool with a lot of leaves and scum on the top. I think there will always be people willing to take that plunge though, and those who do jump in and find treasure at the bottom will surely bring it up for others to see.
Jenn: I can see why people say that zombies are overdone but honestly they’re always going to be a fun enemy. They’re pretty unique in that you can have varied stories about how they came about and how they act. Zombie games aren’t necessarily all going to be the same just because zombies are involved.
Nadia: Saying zombies are overdone is like saying humans are overdone. There is always going to be a market for zombies, even in a saturated market. Zombies are fun because, at least in my opinion, horror and the occult are fun. Unlike intelligent enemies zombies have no side. They aren’t fighting for a cause; they don’t care who you are or what you’ve done. And in some cases don’t even have a reason for wanting to tear your face off. That is freaking terrifying. It’s beyond even animalistic needs and desire. That is what makes them so fun, because your primary goal around them is simply to survive.
Is Crowned Daemon a full time job or does the team have day-jobs to pay the bills?
Chris: We currently have a mix of both, there are some individuals who need to be working full time on the game for us to move forward at all and everyone else is part time. It’s our hope that in the future we’ll be able to have everyone working full time for the company.
There has been mixed opinion about [Valve’s] Greenlight since its inception. How do you feel about the process of getting a game on steam?
Chris: I think that the value the greenlight system offers to indie developers cannot be overstated. I think Steam has done a good job of trying to stop developers from manipulating the system, such as when groups of developers were getting together and agreeing to up-vote each other’s games en masse. That said, it does seem like to make the most of Greenlight you need to have a fanbase going in, which defeats the purpose of Greenlight being used as a tool to discover games. My guess is this is because of Greenlight’s reputation of having lots of low-quality games on display, which discourages some people from bothering to peruse Greenlight unless the game goes viral, which isn’t necessarily a guarantee of the game’s qualities or merits.
I know Steam has been planning on overhauling the system, so I don’t know if they intend to try to fix these problems in the future. In the meantime I still believe that Greenlight, despite its faults, is invaluable to developers and shouldn’t be written off entirely.
Last of all, where can we find each of you and where can we find info on your projects? Shill away.
Jenn: Our company website is in the process of being completely overhauled right now, but can still be accessed at crowneddaemonstudios.net . We always love more followers on Facebook and Twitter. Lastly, if you feel like you might like to play our game in the future and you like what you see, please help us get greenlit on Steam Greenlight here.
If you want to chat with me personally, you can reach me at @RobotLamia on twitter, although I should warn you that I’m actually pretty shy outside of business situations! If you want to talk business, you can reach me directly at “firstname.lastname@example.org .”
Chris: If you want to talk to me, my twitter is @Daemonpro if you want to do small talk. For more serious conversations you’d be best suited reaching out to me at email@example.com so that we’re not limited to 140 characters.
Nadia: If you want to chat you can reach out to me on twitter @MissTaxidermy. To see my art I have my portfolio here and my tumblr.
A big thanks to the folks at Crowned Daemon for this enlightening interview. Shown below is an early alpha gameplay trailer for FREAK, currently on Greenlight.
(Disclosure: Members of SuperNerdLand do follow and communicate with some of Crowned Daemon Studios team members over social media, but neither the author nor SuperNerdLand are financially or professionally affiliated with Crowned Daemon studios. This interview was sought out of interest in the project and respect for the team.)
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